There’s a body of research that argues that low-income African Americans and other students of color do poorly in school because they adopt a negative attitude toward their academic pursuits[i]. Here, the argument is that this constructed mindset prevents students from fully engaging and putting in the effort that later requires them to be successful in college and in life. What’s worse, some claim that this oppositional attitude gets tragically embedded in their culture.[ii]
John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham coauthored a study[iii] that discovered that high-performing black students at a DC high school camouflaged their academic ability to avoid the social embarrassment of “acting white.” Depending on the real or perceived threats in the school environment, avoiding this label was enough to cause a young man or woman to put the brakes on trying to be a good student and adopt a low academic profile.
Tempted To Dumb It Down
This was my experience as well. I remember being called “white boy” by my so-called friends because of my good grades. Ironically, the year that the name calling was most virulent was in 10th grade—my first year at a predominantly white magnet high school—when about 80 fellow students from my mostly black neighborhood were bused to the Long Island school about six miles away. The name-calling came from both my black and white classmates (the latter group I wasn’t expecting)!
Because of the verbal assaults, there were times I was tempted to “dumb down” my performance by not studying as hard. I hid my test grades from my friends and completely avoided the subject about classes when we socially got together. I was forced to wear a “mask” that prevented others from knowing how well I was doing. Authors Majors and Billson in their book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America discusses the blank facial expression that African American males in particular wear as a defense mechanism against social assaults. Unfortunately, this same mask or “cool pose” sometimes gets young men in trouble in college because it could also be used to mask their need for help.
Where Does This Oppositional Attitude Come From?
In certain settings, the social cost of being a good student is too high compared to the benefit of fitting in and performing down to the group’s expectations. Similar to my 10th grade experience, the researchers found that students would pull out all stops to hide their ability or, at worse, dumb down their effort or test performance just to be accepted by their peer group.
If this coping strategy results in putting in less effort and ultimate disengagement in school even for a short time, then this lack of engagement compounds academic gaps for example in reading, writing or math, eventually leading to greater challenges to do college-level work.
Challenging Social Norms and Expectations
While the cultural opposition argument has some merit in certain circles, there are those like me who withstood the assaults and pushed through it. Here’s how.
Draw Strength from Family
Thankfully, I continued to do well, despite the pressure to downplay my abilities. I had a family who reminded me of my future, and they explained why it was so valuable to work hard in school.
Find Your Posse
I eventually found my posse, a group of friends who equally valued their academics. And my high school was not socially toxic. We were not threatened or forced to do others’ homework or bullied. No, in fact members of my posse were very popular for different reasons. Two of the guys were star basketball players. (I was cut from the team.) One guy was the “pretty boy” and always had the best looking girlfriends. I eventually became president of the African American Culture Club and drum major. I found my way to popularity through political action and the marching band, a profile that appealed to certain social networks.
Avoid the Crabs in the Barrel
The point here is this. There will always be the crabs in the barrel. You know the phenomenon, when one crab tries to get out of a pot of boiling water, another crab will reach up and pull it down, thinking the climbing crab will give them leverage. In the end, no crab gets out of the pot, leading to their traumatic fate. Here, it’s important to find your posse and not rail against the teachers or the school.
This goes for college as well. Find guys and gals who share your values and interests, and who could spur you on to success, rather than bring you down like those crabs.
Image taken from http://theanonymousblonde.com/tag/little-white-lies/
[i] Ogbu, J. U. (1990). Minority education in comparative perspective. Journal of Negro Education, 39(1), 45-60.
Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1988). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology of Education Quarterly, 29(2), 1-24.
[ii] Coleman, J., Campbell, E., Hobson, C., McPartland, J., Mood, A., & Weinfeld, F. (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
[iii] Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the “burden of ‘acting white. The Urban Review, 18(3), 176-206.